Also known as Children of Tokyo, this silent Japanese masterpiece from director Yasujiro Ozu is a charming, genial satire that touches on a bitter truth: While everyone is born with great expectations for themselves, the majority of us end up leading lives of unremarkable routine.
The film opens with two young brothers (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugarawa) on their first day in a new neighborhood. Their father Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), a middle manager, hopes living near his boss will improve his situation within the company. The boys, meanwhile, must negotiate an unfamiliar social network, including a gang of bullies to which the son of their father’s boss belongs.
Aoki and Sugarawa are precious, natural presences – especially considering that in America, this was the age of Our Gang mugging. Hoping to evade the bullies, the mischievous brothers skip school and share a picnic in a field – an extended scene of such believable sibling camaraderie you feel as if Ozu must have been filming the boys with a candid camera.
You want to think that a life of monotony isn’t awaiting these bright kids, yet I Was Born, but… initially suggests that it is. At one point, Ozu’s camera tracks along a series of desks at Yoshii’s office as each man yawns in succession – when one doesn’t, the witty camera backtracks and waits until he does. You laugh, but then your heart breaks a bit when the film immediately cuts to a shot of uniformed school kids at their desks working on the same assignment. The indoctrination of ordinariness has already begun.
Or has it? After the brothers witness their father making a fool of himself in order to entertain his boss, the older one (Sugarawa) confronts his father later at home. (Aoki, playing the younger, amusingly mimics each of Sugarawa’s angry gestures.) Why aren’t you important, they demand of their dad. It’s a crushing, complicated scene, one which Ozu handles with astonishing deference. Without denigrating the father, he gives us hope that these spirited boys will achieve something important indeed.